Living behind the Iron Curtain is distant history to those born after 1990. That includes a large proportion of cinema audiences and is perhaps the reason for a swag of films coming out of Eastern Europe.
This generation will not fully understand the privations of a society where travel to the non-communist West was forbidden, religious belief was discouraged and severe punishment followed unsuccessful escape attempts.
For westerners, the realities of life in these societies were largely unknown because of censorship and inaccessibility. But once the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, film-makers were soon able to test their new freedoms.
While World War II still provided a steady source of stories, which communist authorities encouraged, contemporary life was less examined.
Poland and Germany were among the first off the mark with such films as Goodbye, Lenin! (2003) and The Lives of Others (2006).
The former was a comedy in which a recuperating mother, an ardent communist, was encouraged to believe the regime still existed in case the shock of liberation killed her. The latter was an exposé of the Stasi, East Germany’s all-pervasive secret police.
East German themes are also well covered in TV miniseries such as The Same Sky (new on Netflix), Deutschland 83 (Lightbox) and West (BBC), as well as features such as Barbara (2012).
From Poland, a standout was the Oscar-winning Ida (2013) about a novice nun, who was born Jewish, and her atheist aunt, a judge in the legal system.
This year’s New Zealand International Film Festival has three outstanding examples to add to this collection.
The Teacher, from Slovakia (formerly part of Czechoslovakia), is about doctrinaire teacher and Communist Party official (Zuzana Mauréry), who spins a web of corruption by rewarding or punishing her pupils according to how their parents respond to demand for favours.
A few of the parents kick back, because they realise their bright offspring are paying the consequences. But challenging authority isn’t easy and these pressures emerge in a parent-teacher meeting that forms the bulk of the narrative.
Apart from the realistic characters and quality of the acting, the 1983 setting emphasises the quaint clothing and furniture fashions that marked the communist era.
This look is also on display in Hostages, a reconstruction of a 1983 aircraft hijacking in Georgia. A desire to travel prompted this disastrous escape attempt by a reckless middle-class group after a wedding. They try to seize control of an Aeroflot flight from Tbilisi to Moscow via Batumi, near the border with Turkey. Though clearly doomed from the start, their defiant idealism and the consequences provide a strong lesson for today’s generation about the not-so-recent past.
As its title suggests, In Times of Fading Light, made by former East Germans, occurs just before the fall of the Wall as family, friends and functionaries celebrate the 90th birthday of a veteran communist hero (Bruno Ganz). His grandson has joined the rush of defectors to the West and the system to which he has dedicated his life is crumbling, though no one can admit it.
Ratings: The Teacher: mature audiences. 103 minutes. Hostages: R13. 104 minutes. In Times of Fading Light: mature audiences. 101 minutes.